Ilya Breyman is a Russian immigrant; he came to the United States with his family in 2001, just two weeks before 9/11, and found the American unity in response to the tragedy to be profoundly inspiring.
But today, he says, that unity is gone. Instead, the political culture is more like the one his parents grew up with in the Soviet Union: polarized and divided according to certain classifications, like ethnic group or political affiliation.
In response, Breyman, 37, is running for the open seat in Pennsylvania’s 178th House district.
With a victory, the Jewish Holland resident would represent his neighbors in Northampton Township, Upper Southampton Township, Warwick Township and Wrightstown Township. The Democrat is running unopposed in the May 17 primary but will have to flip a seat held by Republican Wendi Thomas. Thomas herself, though, is not running for reelection.
“We want to run a positive campaign focusing on practical issues,” Breyman said. “We want to engage everybody on the left and the right and in the middle in a discussion on how we can make our community better.”
In a campaign announcement, Breyman listed several legislative priorities, all of which are practical, everyday issues that impact most everybody: opening access to quality education for children, creating good jobs, investing in infrastructure, conserving the natural world and supporting police officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians.
“We are Americans first, and Republicans, Democrats or independents second,” Breyman said in his campaign announcement.
This strategy, according to the candidate, is a step past the divisive, culture war politics that defined the 2010s. People are tired of that, he said.
“We’ve got people on the extremes pulling us in different directions,” Breyman added. “Imposing an agenda that doesn’t really benefit anybody.”
“They’re not talking about real things,” he concluded.
Breyman’s focus on “real things” didn’t start with this campaign, according to his sister Maria Shamkalian, a Langhorne resident who is helping him run. As a kid, “he always was thinking of how to change the world,” she said.
But the Holland resident’s first exposure to politics didn’t come until 2001 when, at 16, Breyman accompanied his parents to a protest over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to take over the independent television channel NTV.
After the protest, Breyman and his parents could sense that the initial openness in Russia after the Soviet Union’s fall was starting to close again. In response, they left for the United States.
Today, the family runs a couple of early childhood centers in Northeast Philadelphia called Ann Kids, named for Breyman’s mother. Breyman himself founded an educational tech startup called Coursalytics.
Neither endeavor would have been possible in Russia, Breyman said.
“The Russian economy was dominated by oligarchs. It was very hard to do business without getting involved in the government,” he added. “Here you can run a small business and be successful.”
Through his first 15 years in the U.S., the immigrant voted Republican like many of his fellow Russians. They hated communism, the candidate explained.
But in 2016, Breyman recognized what he saw as another political threat in the form of Donald Trump, who reminded him of Putin and other authoritarian Russian leaders. So he changed his affiliation to the Democratic Party.
“We also forget we ran away from a cult of personality, corrupt leadership,” he said. “That not only applies to the communist regime but to the regime that replaced it and is in power now.”
As a moderate who believes he understands perspectives from both sides, Breyman said he can talk to anyone on the trail, a quality that may serve him well in a county often recognized as a political bellwether that can go either way.
Dan Siegel, a consultant for the Dover Strategy Group, which helps Democratic campaigns and is advising Breyman, thinks that the candidate’s focus on practical issues reflects that bipartisan skill. It’s also what voters want to hear at the moment.
“You don’t have to see confidential polling to know that the most important issues to people right now are inflation, jobs,” Siegel said. “We’re starting to turn a corner on the toxic culture of the last five years.”
Breyman has filed to run for the seat and is still in the process of planning events. But he is driving around to neighborhoods and knocking on doors.
“People are very friendly,” said Shamkalian, who has accompanied her brother on some rounds. “People are just sharing how they’d like to make the community better.” JE